Aleko Lilius

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Aleko Lilius.

Aleko Axel August Eugen Lilius (2 April 1890 in Saint Petersburg, Russia – 24 June 1977 in Helsinki, Finland) was an explorer, free-lance writer and photographer, variously described as an “English journalist,” “Russian-Finnish,” “an English writer of Finnish origins,” “a United States citizen of Finnish origin,” a “Swedish journalist and adventurer,” and an “intrepid American journalist.” He was also a convicted fraudster.[1] A lawsuit involving Lilius in the Philippines in 1934 [2] described him thus:

…The plaintiff Aleko E. Lilius has, for many years, been a well-known and reputed journalist, author and photographer. At the time of the collision in question, he was a staff correspondent in the Far East of the magazines The American Weekly of New York and The Sphere of London…Some of his works have been translated into various languages. He had others in preparation when the accident occurred. According to him, his writings netted him a monthly income of P1,500. He utilized the linguistic ability of his wife Sonja Maria Lilius, who translated his articles and books into English, German, and Swedish. Furthermore, she acted as his secretary…

Virtually all of Lilius' output as a writer is based on his wide-ranging travels in such places as China, Morocco, and Mexico. The first mention of Lilius as a writer is as the author of the script for the 1919 Finnish film Venusta etsimässä eli erään nuoren miehen ihmeelliset seikkailut (In search of Venus—or—the Marvelous Adventures of a Young Man). During the 1920s and 30s, Lilius functioned as foreign correspondent in Asia and North Africa. During the 1920s he worked with linguist Rudolf Schuller as a photographer in Mexico. In the 1950s he lived in Morocco. In the 1930s, Lilius lived in the United States, residing in the famous Armour-Stiner Octagon house in Irvington-on-Hudson in the state of New York. In 1958 he moved to Helsinki, Finland, and devoted himself to painting.

I Sailed with Chinese Pirates[edit]

Lilius is primarily remembered as the author of I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, an account of the time he spent among pirates of the South China seas. The original review in The New York Times of 27 July 1931 reads in part:

A meeting with a mysterious woman pirate chief, Lai Choi San, with several thousand ruthless buccaneers under command, is described in the volume I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, which is published today by D. Appleton & Co. Aleko E. Lilius, English journalist, while traveling in the Orient, according to the publishers, succeeded in winning the confidence of this unusual woman, and he accompanied her and some of her desperadoes on one of their expeditions on a junk equipped with cannon. Mr. Lilius’s publishers describe him as the only white man who has ever Sailed with these pirates…

The “mysterious woman pirate chief,” Lai Choi San, is widely believed to be the source inspiration for the character of the Dragon Lady, the oriental ‘’femme fatale’’ in Milton Caniff’s comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. Although Lilius did not use the term “Dragon Lady” in his book—he referred to Lai Choi San as “Queen of the Pirates”— Caniff did, in fact, appropriate the Chinese name for his character. According to one source, this was the cause of a later legal dispute between Lilius and the syndicate that produced the comic strip, Terry and the Pirates.[3]

A review of the later (1991) Oxford University Press reprint says that the book is “ …a good read in the sensational nineteen-twenties style of journalism…briskly moving but somewhat superficial…”

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • (1919) Herr C.G's politiska affärer (Mr. C G's Political Affairs)
  • (in the 1920s) Extensive photography for the Rudolf Schuller Papers. These papers consist of field notes, vocabulary lists, manuscripts, and photos from Schuller's studies of a variety of Mexican and Central American Indian languages and dialects, with particular emphasis on the culture and language of the Huastecan Indians. The collection is now in the hands of the Middle American Research Institute of Tulane University.
  • (1928) Min kinesiska Krigsbok (My Chinese War Diary). Pub. Hökerbergs.
  • (1931) I Sailed with Chinese Pirates
  • (1948) The Romantic Thousand Islands, Their Towns and Times. Publisher: Holliday Publications Ltd., Canada.
  • (1956) Turbulent Tangier,[4] an account of the money market and smuggling operations in post-war Tangier. The book was also published as Lady Jaguar and is a picture of a Morocco in transition during unstable French rule. Lilius comes across terrorists, encounters a Muslim reformer, traffick in jewels, etc. The title alludes to a somewhat shadowy smuggler queen in Tangiers, whom Lilius claims to have known personally.
  • (1956) Ung man i farten (Memoirs: A Young Man's Journey)
  • (1957) Ett herrans liv (Memoirs: A Gentleman's Life)
  • (1962)The Romantic Thousand Islands: Photographs - Maps – History, Publisher: Wallace.
  • Also, Lilius published a number of free-lance articles in magazines such as Argosy (UK) (May 1947), Stag (Feb 1952), Adventure Magazine (Jan 1953), The Wide World, (Sept, 1930, Publisher: George Newnes Ltd, London); and The Sphere Illustrated Newspaper (London), (July 4, 1931), which was “…a brief sketch of the Sultan of Sulu, courted by the U.S. in an effort to defuse Moro hostility during its governance of the Philippines…”; and (1964) “The Sultan of Sulu tells how England ‘stole’ North Borneo.


  • Lilius, Aleko E. (1931). I Sailed with Chinese Pirates. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 
  • Lilius, Aleko E. (1991). I Sailed with Chinese Pirates. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press reprint. ISBN 0-19-585297-4. 
  • Lilius, Aleko E. (1956). Turbulent Tangier. London: Elek Books. OCLC 28756841. 


External links[edit]